I am not a computer nerd and only got familiar with computers after they had become consumer-friendly. Growing up in a world when “high-tech” meant an electric typewriter, I never got to experience the thrill of tinkering around with punched cards (except for a very brief introduction when I was a history student at UT in the mid-1970s), or what is now referred to as “third-generation computing,” which includes stuff built in the 1970s when I was in college. This category includes machines with interesting and exotic names like LINC, PDP-8, and VAX made by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General, and Prime Computer. And I even skipped the next generation that introduced us to the first Apple and IBM home computers. I didn’t present my family with their first computer until 1998 and we all marveled at this custom-built beauty outfitted with a dial-up modem. It was on this machine that I sent my first Kelly’s Place creation via email to our editor. That was, and still is, a pretty spooky moment that divides my life into its Pre-Email and Post-Email phases. To end this paragraph of confessionals, I must confess I have never written a line of computer code, and I remember avoiding my first computer’s MS-DOS screen like the plague.
I’ve just said all that to tell you that I am reading Brian Dear’s fascinating new book, THE FRIENDLY ORANGE GLOW: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE PLATO SYSTEM AND THE DAWN OF CYBERCULTURE. If I had not spent the last few years reading about technology, new modes of learning, and the implications of living in an always-connected world I probably wouldn’t have picked up a book with this kind of title. Well, I am glad I did pick it up, because it takes us on a journey into a strange new world that is unfamiliar to most people. As a student of history, I always enjoy encountering new topics and new ways of thinking about the world in which we live. And this book certainly does all that. And it reads like a sci-fi or fantasy novel that relates a very true tale of some very nerdy students living in central Illinois in the 1970s and very busy with creating the world as we now know it. So, in a fundamental way Dear has given to us a creation story that explains how we got from then to now.
In his well-crafted prose, Dear, who is a “tech-startup entrepreneur,” tells us that “Out in the middle of that fruited Illinois plain there’s a place where a lot of the future we take for granted today got started, long ago. The town is Urbana, and the place is one of the largest universities in the United States: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” And in that city the future was born in a former power plant called The Mechanical Engineering Laboratory, home to a group of excitable engineering students who created a computer system called PLATO. “What happened in this building changed the world,” writes Dear, although “very few have heard” about what was created there. I know I hadn’t until I picked up this book. When I first saw its title I assumed it had something to do with Socrates’ sidekick, Plato, who was also a creator of worlds from way back in the day, long before the construction of the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory. The creations that were conjured up in this red brick building during the 1970s eventually coalesced into what we refer to today as Cyberculture and include instant messaging, chat rooms, message boards, screensavers, online games and newspapers, computer learning, multiplayer gaming, interactive fiction, social media, and those ubiquitous and sometimes annoying emoticons. All of these now common and taken-for-granted things from a very unfamiliar world first appeared on PLATO’s blinking orange screen.
During the many twists and turns of Dear’s absorbing narrative we meet the cast of characters who gave birth to a new world–familiar people like B.F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist, and not-so-familiar ones like Jo Bultman, Tim Halvorsen, Bob Rader, David Grasper, David Wooley, Richard Powers, and Paul Tenczar. Even Ronald Reagan makes an appearance, and is pictured touching the friendly orange screen in a computer lab he visited once upon a time when he called the White House his home.
In his Preface, Dear ask us to “Imagine discovering that a small group of people had invented a fully functioning jet airplane capable of flying long distances at hundreds of miles per hour, decades before the Wright brothers cast their fragile craft into the wind for twelve seconds over North Carolina sand dunes in 1903.” And just think “how such a discovery would disrupt our common understanding of history.” The story of PLATO presents us with this kind of scenario, and Dear makes us wonder why this story has been hidden for so long. In my mind it is akin to waking up one day to find that aliens really did crash near Roswell, New Mexico in the 1947 and that their bodies have just been resurrected.
PLATO (now called NovaNET) officially came to an end shortly after 2:00 a.m. on October 1, 2015. By that time most of the world had completely forgotten the system, and only a faithful few stood by to witness its demise. We are now the inheritors of all the marvels it brought forth, and we can only surmise what lies ahead.
If you are the least bit curious about the origins of the universe you now inhabit, I urge you to read this fascinating and eye-opening book. In fact, I will follow my own advice by finishing it as soon as possible.
See you next week.